The Objective Truth

Can science tell us what’ s objectively true? Or is it merely a clever way to cure doubt—to give us something to believe in, real or not? In this series of blog posts, we’ ll look at a provocative answer to this question given by the late 19th century American scientist, mathematician, logician, and philosopher, Charles Sanders Peirce. But before delving into this eminent thinker’s view—and in the interest of full disclosure—let me begin by telling you what your present humble blogger used to think. I used to think that science was purely objective. A failsafe machine for churning out facts and converting foggy ignorance to sober knowledge.

Scientists, I thought, were a special breed of truth-discoverers—sort of like superheroes, actually, only much, much nerdier. Removed from commonplace concerns and exempt from ordinary human foibles, their pronouncements were gospel. That was before I trained as a scientist. And skipping to the punch line now: I was naïve. Even if the scientific method, on some ideal conception of it, could justify this dreamy-eyed confidence, I’ ve come to learn that the practice of science deserves a much more cynical look.

Scientists, it turns out, are humans too. They have reputations to defend, insecurities to navigate, and careers to make. Karl Popper, the famous 20th century philosopher of science, had it wrong: scientists don’ t abandon their favored theories or years-long research programs the instant a contrary piece of data rears its ugly head. Studies that don’ t work are run again; equipment is tinkered with or replaced; research assistants are fired. Science can be a messy business. Even so, if someone wanted to mount a defense of science, her best bet might be to appeal to the much-vaunted ‘objective’ nature of its ideal form: its seeming privileged relationship to truth.

Insofar as it’s done right, our imagined apologist might say, science deserves our allegiance because it transcends subjective belief—and the fallible groping of common sense—and latches on in some systematic way to ultimate reality. If we are committed to reason, then we should be compelled by science. This is where Charles Peirce—polymath and founder of the school of thought known as pragmatism—would disagree. In an 1877 essay, The Fixation of Belief, he attempted to champion the scientific method without appealing to reason, rationality, or objective truth. Instead (and this is what pragmatism is all about), he argued that science is more like a nifty trick—a practical emollient for the irritation of doubt that happens to trump other prescriptions. Got uncertainty? Try science. Not for any theoretic, metaphysical, or transcendent reason, mind you, but on pragmatic grounds alone. It just works. Well… really? Does science ‘work’ to cure uncertainty in the way Peirce suggests? And if it does, why?

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If you’ re like me, you might not be convinced that the scientific method is in fact the surest way to conquer doubt—at least for certain individuals, probably some whole groups, and maybe even the entire species. I’ ll explain what I mean later on. Second, to the extent that it is a good way, I think it’s for less ‘pragmatic’ a reason than Peirce pretends. In fact, by the end of this series of posts, I want to convince you that Peirce himself must have been committed to an ‘objective’ view of science—one which says its methods are sensitive to the real state of the world, and therefore hit upon truth more reliably than alternatives. It is this special link to objective reality—and not some accident of our animal psychologies—that compels, insofar as it does, the calm stableness of belief. 

But let’ s not get too far ahead of ourselves. In order to be fair to Peirce, we should probably start with his view, in his own terms. How does begin his argument? The answer is: at the very beginning—with a definition of our species. A human being, he tells us, is a ‘logical animal’ —a belief-bearing beast, if you will—who is defined by its ability to reason, but whose access to mind-independent reality is obscure at best. Why is that? Well, as ‘animals’ we are products of natural selection—that much is uncontroversial. But what about the ‘logical’ part—what about our reasoning minds? To be sure, at least some of our beliefs (and belief-forming systems generally) must track the actual state of world. I not, we’ d have dumped by now into evolution’ s scrap pile. (To illustrate: if you sincerely believe that jumping off this cliff won’t threaten your survival—and you’ re still a virgin, I have to point out—you can be sure that the next generation will be spared your genes). That being said, insofar as it’s ‘of more advantage to the animal to have his mind filled with pleasing and encouraging visions’ – irrespective of their truth— ‘then natural selection might occasion a fallacious tendency of thought’. 

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For Peirce, then, it’ s a tricky issue to sort out the ‘objective’ relationship of our human reasoning to the world’ s reality—that is, between our beliefs and actual fact. We are probably hit or miss. So for Peirce a different question comes up, namely, How in fact do we reason? When and why do we engage in processes of rational inquiry, and under what conditions do we stop? For the answer, watch this space…

Quotations in this blog come from Peirce’ s ‘The Fixation of Belief’ in ‘Pragmatism: A Reader’, edited by Louis Menand, or, in a few cases, ‘How to Make Our Ideas Clear’ in the same volume